in re books, wrap-up

My thoughts are with the folks struggling with power outages and Sandy’s destruction. I left NYC on Sunday morning after attending the In Re Books conference given by New York Law School. I was on the Libraries panel. I learned a great deal about the current state of digital content and the legal structure supporting and/or inhibiting it and got to listen to a lot of very bright people speak. I was honored to be on a panel with author Caleb Crain, Doron Weber from the Sloan Foundation, and Jonathan Band who does technology law and policy work, all well-moderated by June Besek. I did what I always dread other people would do: prepared too much information for a twelve-minute slot. Fortunately I went last and managed to make it work okay but decided to put the full essay here. Here is my short piece which was intended as a cautionary side note to the idea of a digital public library, an idea I am generally in favor of. Title, swiped from a Cory Doctorow article on boingboing.

You are a mere tenant farmer of your books


My name is Jessamyn West I live in Randolph VT. I am the director of operations for and I work in a rural library and a vocational high school teaching people how to use their computers. Last year I wrote a book called Without a Net, Librarians Bridging the Digital Divide, talking about how public libraries in the US are becoming the de facto social safety net for technology access and instruction at a time when technology skills and access are becoming a necessary part of being an American citizen, an unfunded mandate if you will.

Some of the stuff I’ll be talking about may be known quantities to many of you. I’ll be discussing not just what some of the data is but also why I feel that it matters.


The digital divide is a catchall phrase that people use to roughly refer to the haves and have-nots. It used to refer to who had computers and who didn’t. Then it shifted to refer more to who had online access versus who didn’t, then broadband access, then mobile access. The general gist is that people who lack access don’t just lack a computer, or broadband, or a smart phone, they lack access to a culture that is swiftly beginning to define a large swath of economic and social opportunities (and economic and social power) in a place that is all but invisible to them. And that this lack of options is self-reinforcing, similar to how poverty is not just a lack of money, though it is partly that.

When we start talking about significantly ramping up public access to digital content, particularly cultural content and referring to a digital public library (and idea I am in favor of, by the way) we need to understand the challenges in creating and making available digital content for ALL people, not just those who can afford it and not just those who already know how to access it. Twitter could, for example, have terrible tech support because their business model doesn’t depend on it being usable by (or even relevant to) tech-illiterate users, disabled users, easily confused users, etc.

If our digital public library is truly public, it is for everyone even those who are hardest to serve.


Keep in mind that 20-ish% of adults in America have no internet at home at all. Even the demographics with the most smart phone penetration (jerks like me 25-44) are still in the 60-70% range, max. And while people are continuing to increasingly get smartphones (with caveats like: bandwidth caps, lack of net neutrality, expensive plans and the fact that they are NOT computers…) home broadband adoption is plateauing. And this lack of access isn’t evenly distributed: it’s disproportionately full of older people, poor people, people with less education or English-speaking capacity, people with disabilities, often people with some combination of these challenges. And the people who don’t have broadband are often some of the library’s biggest customers.

We know why people don’t get/use broadband… the IRS and other big government organizations who stand to save a lot of money as people get online more study the heck out of this. People don’t use the internet because they’re afraid (steal your identity, steal your kids), because they don’t see its value or relevance to them, because they can’t afford it, and because they can’t get it where they live. About one in five say that they know enough about technology to start using the internet on their own, three out of five of them report that they would need help in order to get online. Most telling, only one in ten said that they were interested in using the internet or email in the future. Ever?

So the divides are multiple: 1. economic 2. usability 3. empowerment. (Jakob Nielsen)

Attempts to serve everyone with digital content must address all three of these divides.


In public libraries we can address some of these issues but not all of them. We are the only place where the public can get reliable free internet access AND computer access in America. Historically we’re not selling anything but literacy and intellectual freedom. Things get dicey when we have to pick among platforms and file formats (Kindle? Nook? Ibook? PDF? epub?) even though 73% of libraries in the US offer some type of ebooks as of right now. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in many ways was the best and worst thing to happen to libraries at the end of the last century. Now almost all libraries have public access computers. However, most of them especially in rural communities did not choose their platform. Important? Maybe.

Things get dicier when the only choices of ebook platforms we have are ones that abridge our patrons’ rights or abilities to interact with their content. As much as it’s a pain buying Large Print copies of books we already have in regular print (a problem technology can solve! just make the font bigger!), it’s less bad than buying an ebook that has the text-to-speech option disabled. These sorts of limitations are currently things we push against, said to be a necessary evil aspect of lending ebooks because of how the market operates. However there is no natural law that says this has to be this way. Digital rights management is a market creation.

I have an undergrad degree in linguistics, from before I went to library school. We have a saying that explains a larger principle “The morning star is the evening star.” Let me bore you briefly by explaining what this means… Both the morning star and the evening star are Venus (which yes, is a planet) but they’re seen at different times. So the one thing has two names that explain different senses of the thing. So the morning star is the evening star but it also is not.

Ebooks and books are two real world things that refer to one “sense” of a thing. We’ve been living with printed books for so long we have a general social agreement about what they are. At the point at which you are talking about digital content to anyone who is not tech literate, you employ metaphors to explain what is bookish about an ebook and what is not. For people who are digitally divided this is more challenging than for others.

When I’m not working at the small public library in my town (pop. 4500) or teaching computer classes at my local vocational high school I am director of operations for a giant online community called MetaFilter (free accounts for librarians, call me). I work from home. The community I manage is virtual. For the bulk of the people in my town the idea that I could have a real job working “online” is a difficult thing to conceptualize. These people are not ignorant, they just literally have no real-world experience with the idea of online being a place. A store, sure, but a hangout? And the library is not, should not be, a store. So starting with that and moving to the idea of (free) books and movies and music being in this place, we have to get a little abstract. What is a book? What is an ebook? What is a digital file? What is digital rights management? And most importantly, why don’t people agree on these things?

Understanding these things is necessary to understanding a digital library. We must decide if it’s appropriate for our understanding to stand in for our patrons’ understanding.


But back to books, our stock in trade. Many people who are more plugged into this than me will be outlining the ebook/book divide. In my dream librarian world, a patron could choose from among many digital or non-digital format containers, how they would like their content served, and we could deliver it with no loss of service level or quality of content. However we are not there yet.

books vs. ebooks right now

Legally – the right of first sale is under attack and basically doesn’t refer to digital content in the first place. This is a current tug of war between publishers concerned about their business model and libraries/readers concerned about maintaining the values of their institutions in the face of this. The “lending” of digital content is currently not something libraries can do in disintermediated fashion [i.e. there are third party logins and EULAs and privacy policies to contend with] This is suboptimal. It affects not just our quality of service but also our brand and people’s sense of place when they interact with the library.

Socially – social reading-sharing books, annotating books, buying second hand books, seeing when a book was checked out. This is actually a culture that CAN shift very effectively into a digital environment (GoodReads, Library Thing) but we tend to not see that happening with ebooks and lendable ebooks specifically. Why is that?

And there’s the money thing. For the most part, you do not buy an ebook, you license it. The money leaves town and doesn’t come back in the form of second-hand book sales, money to the local book store, heck even employing people in tech services or book repair. These are picky points admittedly, but as someone from a place where Shop/Farm/Buy Local is a rallying cry, we do the math. For every $100 spent locally, $68 returns to the community through taxes, payroll and other expenditures. If you spend that in a national chain, only $43 stays here. Spend it online and nothing comes home at all. All of our libraries’ operating expenses come from grants and taxes of the people who live in the town; it’s fiscally prudent to try to hang on to it.

We need to be mindful about how to make digital content economies valuable to all the people they are by and for.


There are many people doing innovative thinking along these lines from within the library sphere. I am assuming you know about larger players like Hathi Trust and The Google Books Project and you may even be up to date on the Internet Archive’s work with Open Library. One of the things that all of these ground breaking projects have in common is that, unlike the way most of us operate, they started with an idea and got working and then hammered out the legal issues after the fact. This is a good and bad thing, and deeply concerning to people who are litigation averse. Here are a few other projects pointing in the right direction.

LibraryBox – Jason Griffey thinks that libraries will do better with digital content distribution if they’re running their own servers on their own networks
UMich Orphans Project
BPLs copyright shot over the bow
Cornell Public Domain
Flickr Commons
ORI – owner’s rights initiative – “the fundamental premise that if you bought it, you own it” diverse group including ALA
Random House “you own it!”

We need to be experimenting with systems that allow us to maximize sharing and minimize hassle for whatever digital content strategies we employ.


One of the things that has always hamstrung libraries’ ability to share content has been our local funding versus the increasingly global accessibility of our content. Two public libraries five miles away from each other may have totally different collections and facilities because of their funding base. One library may have access to a specialized database that’s for patrons only while patrons down the street lack this access. And techies know that the reasoning behind that is largely market-driven, that being able to re-sell the same digital content to people over and over is part of the revenue model of these companies even though it’s usually just a password that allows one group in and keeps another out.

It’s easy to define your userbase as the people who are using your things, this is how a great deal of business operates. Don’t like our movie, don’t watch it. Don’t like our soda, don’t drink it. At the same time, this leads to historically underserved people continuing to be underserved.

The big thing about public libraries, why they are so unsexy and why they are so challenging as well as so well loved, is that they are for, literally, everyone. And serving everyone is difficult both in a technological sense which we may have sorted or at least be able to sort, but also in a social sense which we definitely do NOT. So, circling it back to “what should a digital public library of america look like” my response if that it’s truly public it has to be available to and real-world accessible by everyone, the entire public including all the dial-up using, spam-concerned, marginally literate, technologically timid among us all.

People often look at online communities (newspaper comment sections, Reddit, YouTube) and wonder why discussions go so toxic so quickly. And my response being someone with nearly ten years in the trenches of online community management and twice that doing the offline equivalent in libraries and schools is that there’s no incentive for them NOT to be. The public librarian in my town doesn’t just leave the door unlocked, turn on the computers and go back home. She sticks around, setting the tone and enforcing the rules at the same time as shes purchasing books, running programming and caring for the building. It’s the humans that make a library a library and not a room full of books and computers.

If there is going to be something like a digital public library of America, much less ONE digital public library of America, we’ve got to make sure it’s for the entire public. And if there is going to be ONE digital public library of America, a project of which I am in favor, I think it needs librarians.

5 thoughts on “in re books, wrap-up

  1. Great article. But I have to give an extra shout out for using the morning star/evening star example. That way of thinking about things has stayed with me and influenced my thinking on various subjects over the years. Glad to see I’m not the only one!

  2. Yeah! It’s so much better and more evocative than groundhog/woodchuck.

  3. Really interesting article as always. Second to last paragraph underlines why online arguments turn sour quickly (in addition to the lack of accountability over the internet that trolls love to exploit)

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